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J.R.R. Tolkien

When J.R.R. Tolkien published The Hobbit on September 21st, 1937, it was immediately met with critical acclaim and high levels of commercial demand.

Naturally, in the ensuing months, publishing houses around Europe contacted Tolkien to enquire about translating and publishing the acclaimed popular novel in their respective tongues. The Berlin publisher Rütten & Loening was on the verge of printing its own German-language version of The Hobbit, when suddenly they requested written documentation of Tolkien’s Aryan heritage. This request so infuriated Tolkien that he penned a letter to his publisher and friend Stanley Unwin. It read:

I must say the enclosed letter from Rütten & Loening is a bit stiff. Do I suffer this impertinence because of the possession of a German name, or do their lunatic laws require a certificate of arisch (aryan) origin from all persons of all countries?

Personally, I should be inclined to refuse to give any Bestätigung (although it happens that I can), and let a German translation go hang. In any case I should object strongly to any such declaration appearing in print… I have many Jewish friends, and should regret giving any colour to the notion that I subscribed to the wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine.

You are primarily concerned, and I cannot jeopardize the chance of a German publication without your approval. So I submit two drafts of possible answers.

Of the two letters which Tolkien went on to draft for Rütten & Loening, one did not even acknowledge their request for racial documentation, and the other rebuked completely their racist ideology and historically baseless appropriation of the label “Aryan.” While we do not know which one Stanley Unwin eventually sent, the latter is reproduced below. It was dated July 25th, 1938.

Thank you for your letter. I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by “arisch.” I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people. My great-great-grandfather came to England in the eighteenth century from Germany: the main part of my descent is therefore purely English, and I am an English subject – which should be sufficient. I have been accustomed, nonetheless, to regard my German name with pride, and continued to do so throughout the period of the late regrettable war, in which I served in the English army. I cannot, however, forbear to comment that if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.

Your enquiry is doubtless made in order to comply with the laws of your own country, but that this should be held to apply to the subjects of another state would be improper, even if it had (as it has not) any bearing whatsoever on the merits of my work or its sustainability for publication, of which you appear to have satisfied yourselves without reference to my Abstammung.

J.R.R. Tolkien by Pamela Chandler, modern bromide print from original negative, September 1961

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These words and the surrounding commentary are sourced and adapted from The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien as well as Humphrey Carpenter’s fantastic book, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography.

It’s funny: Tolkien and his work were extremely popular among Nazi elites who were fixated on his academic writings about Germanic history and the Old Norse dialect. The sentiment, however, was hardly reciprocated, as the comments above evince. In a letter to his son Michael, which he penned on June 9th, 1941, Tolkien wrote,

I have in this War a burning private grudge—which would probably make me a better soldier at 49 than I was at 22: against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler … Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light.

J.R.R. Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien